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l to r: Dr Randall Yatscoff, TEC Edmonton; Steve Xanthoudakis, Merck; Eric Olson, Genzyme; Jennifer Hamilton, Johnson & Johnson

When TEC Edmonton set up its TEC Health Accelerator program seven months ago, one of its goals (besides accelerating 50 new health-related companies in Alberta in five years) was to “fill in the gaps” in the Alberta’s health-related innovation system.

On March 25 and 26, 2015, a good start was made on bridging a major gap.

Representatives from three major international pharmaceutical and health-product companies came to spend two days in Edmonton, to have one-on-one meetings with University of Alberta researchers and early-stage health companies pre-screened for suitability by TEC Edmonton.

One of the identified gaps has simply been getting health industry executives out to Alberta to learn what has been cooking in this hotbed of biotechnology, developed mostly through the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine.

So it was that Johnson & Johnson advisor Jennifer Hamilton, Genzyme Portfolio Strategy Manager Eric Olson and Steve Xanthoudakis, Director of Business Development for Merck Research Laboratories, were in Edmonton from Vancouver, Boston and Montreal respectively, checking out potential partners. The company representatives will return to Alberta to visit with Calgary-based health companies and researchers on Tuesday, June 23, 2015.

On Thursday morning, the trio participated in a Faculty of Medicine/TEC Health Accelerator hosted panel discussion, “Partnering with the Pharmaceutical Industry” in front of 160 interested researchers, students and entrepreneurs in the U of A’s Clinical Sciences Building.

“To create and commercialize a new drug now takes 10 to 12 years and costs $1 billion,” says TEC Health Accelerator program director and panel moderator Jason Ding. “Developing health-related products takes expertise at many levels including clinical and regulatory experience, large amounts of capital and a marketing field team. In today’s business environment, the current model requires smaller companies and researchers to partner with large multi-nationals to get their products to market.”

Of special interest currently to the pharmaceutical companies are immune-oncology and new immunology mechanisms (Merck), rare genetic diseases (Genzyme) and global health products with world-wide application (Johnson & Johnson).

Asked what’s the best “pitch” from a researcher to get the attention of a pharmaceutical company, Xanthoudakis suggested that if the researcher “has a clear understanding of the (scientific) mechanism to reach a well-defined target, often a bio-marker and showing that they have a compound that works … we’d be very interested.”

For Genzyme, a demonstrated medical need with a genetic understanding was important.

Cut to the chase, suggested Johnson & Johnson advisor Hamilton – don’t waste time on general information. Does your solution have relevance, she asked, or in other words “is it better than what is out there?”

To reach the “Confidential Disclosure Agreement” (CDA) stage with a major company is a milestone, but no guarantee of success. “Merck looks at 5,000 to 6,000 possibilities a year,” said Steve. “About 10% reach a CDA, then Merck does about 50 to 60 deals a year – about 1% of everything we look at.”

Once a deal has been reached with a major pharmaceutical company, research and development funding often follows.  All three companies – Johnson & Johnson, Merck and Genzyme also have their own or associated health corporate venture capital funds.

Despite the desire and practicality of finding better and more cost-effective solutions to human suffering, the three representatives acknowledged that pharmaceutical companies must turn a profit or they will go out of business.  However, all three company spokespeople agreed that for them, their love of science was at the heart of the matter. “We all have partnerships that study the diseases themselves,” said Jennifer, “with no drug in mind.”

As part of the TEC Health Accelerator program, the strategic partners – both medical companies and health investment firms – will be coming to Alberta on a regular basis to meet with possible research or business partners based in the province.

For more information about the TEC Health Accelerator, please visit https://www.tecedmonton.com/health-accelerator/